“It probably never occurred to (Billie) that she couldn’t do it. That right there was everything,” Benatar says. “I don’t even think it’s in her lexicon of thought that ‘I can’t be this person.’ ”
Benatar shares those postulations in the final installment of Epix’s “Women Who Rock” docuseries, which airs July 31 (9 p.m. EDT/PDT). The third episode, also featuring the “Heartbreaker” hitmaker arrives Sunday. She’s joined by a parade of genre-spanning artists including Shania Twain, Macy Gray, Sheryl Crow and St. Vincent, who offer incisive commentary about muscling into the male-dominated music industry.
As a veteran of the rock circus – debut album “In the Heat of the Night” landed in 1979 – Benatar, 69, is well-versed in navigating gender minefields.
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She was the first female artist played on MTV (“You Better Run”) more by luck than design. But after 11 studio albums, a cache of hits co-powered by guitarist husband Neil Giraldo and impending induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Benatar is still standing with a defiant smile.
She and Giraldo will also finally unveil the musical “Invincible” – utilizing her songs and based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” – in November.
Calling from her bus headed for a show in Akron, Ohio, the candid Benatar talked to USA TODAY about the misogyny she experienced throughout her career and why you won’t hear “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” during this tour.
Question: In the documentary, you mention the numerous obstacles you endured. What was the hardest part about breaking into the music industry?
Pat Benatar: I grew up in a really female-heavy household. So my experience was that there was no difference between men and women. When I got into the world, nothing was more shocking to me than to see that wasn’t exactly true. People were patting you on the head but they didn’t mean it; they were lying. It was infuriating.
Q: What about when you decided to have kids? (Benatar and Giraldo have two daughters.) Did you feel it would hinder your career?
Benatar: I was madly in love with Neil and wanted to have a baby and was like, we’ll figure it out. The reality of it was terrifying. There was no help from the record company and management. They were absolutely furious that I (got pregnant). My manager said, “Why would you do something like that?” You knew the misogyny was there, but when that happened, it became amazingly clear. It changed everything for me. I became really, really fierce.
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Q: When you see some of your peers still out there touring – like Joan Jett and Debbie Harry – do you feel a sense of sisterhood?
Benatar: Definitely now. It was really sad when we were doing it. Deb and I were acquaintances as label mates, but the competition was very stiff. The people running the boat really pitted you against each other artistically. It was really sickening. We never had the opportunity to (celebrate other female artists) until Lilith Fair.
Q: You also have a big coronation in November with your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. It took 20 years since you were eligible to be nominated the first time and you’re finally being acknowledged. Did the delay bother you?
Benatar: Never. What’s fun for us is to watch how excited everyone else is – our family or friends or the (DJ) in Seattle who put that first cartridge in his radio station with “Heartbreaker” on it. But listen, it’s great. It’s great for our kids. But the truth is, they’re acknowledging work that has already been done, so it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t do anything to validate me as a person, but it’s nice.
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Q: You’ve been singing those big vocal songs including “Heartbreaker” on this tour. You’ve also been playing (The Beatles’) “Helter Skelter.” Why that song?
Benatar: Because I want to have some (expletive) fun! We’re doing a lot of songs we don’t always play like “In the Heat of the Night” and “I Need a Lover.” We have what we call the “holy 14,” songs that if we don’t play them, you’ll give us (a hard time). And we’re not doing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and fans are having a heart attack and I’m like, I’m sorry, in deference to the victims of the families of these mass shootings, I’m not singing it. I tell them, if you want to hear the song, go home and listen to it. (The title) is tongue-in-cheek, but you have to draw the line. I can’t say those words out loud with a smile on my face, I just can’t. I’m not going to go on stage and soapbox – I go to my legislators – but that’s my small contribution to protesting. I’m not going to sing it. Tough.
Q: As an artist, how do these social traumas like Roe v. Wade being overturned and the mass shootings affect the tenor of the work you’re singing from 30 or 40 years ago?
Benatar: Well, “Invincible” is really important. I’m worried, like all of us, about fundamental autonomy rights. This is a slippery slope. It’s not about abortion for me. I’m concerned that people are not paying attention to what this actually means.
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